There’s a narrative that artists and industries took more creative risks in the past; one possible reason for that was the businesses and industry just was able to cross-subsidize different work. If they made a commercial success, that would fund the critical one. Author and critic William Deresiewicz writes:
In the past, one of the principal ways that the culture industry supported more subtle or thoughtful or artistically ambitious work was through cross-subsidization. The entertainment paid for the art: the thriller supported the poetry, the pop star supported the girl-with-guitar, the blockbuster floated the art-house division. Magazines and newspapers were themselves a form of cross-subsidization, with the fashion features or the sports reporting making possible the fiction or the deep investigative piece. So were albums: the “single” up front, for the radio play; the “deep cuts” for the art and soul. But now it’s every tub on its own bottom. Everything has been unbundled; every song, every story, every unit must pay for itself. No more deep cuts.
Even if it were true in the past (I don’t have a strong opinion on this—I think there’s a lot of great artists creating and releasing independently right now), that’s no longer the case. Many publishers, record labels, production houses, and handlers want to work with de-risked projects; smaller advance payments (sometimes with no better royalty terms), with larger advances going only to artists with established audiences or a proven work.
If you’re a creator or artist, the implication here is you’ll also need to de-risk your own position and work, because it’s not likely the industry will do it for you. For some people, that means getting a full-time job and working on their creative work in their spare time. Even just a light pressure to monetize can take the fun out of a creative endeavor.
Another implication: scope it down! You also no longer need to work with an intermediary to publish the simplest version of your work. Execute at the smallest scale possible, with the cheapest tools possible, and in the shortest amount of time as possible, to complete the first version of an idea.
Make something you can show people and get them to believe in the project. (Kevin Kelly: “Start by buying the absolute cheapest tools you can find. Upgrade the ones you use a lot. If you wind up using some tool for a job, buy the very best you can afford.”)
I feel strongly about this. For me, I wanted to write a book, and I spent too many years hoping I’d be positioned with a traditional publishing deal before doing that. Several years of trying, and after many moments of frustration, I just stopped all that noise and decided to write the damn book.
It would be a short digital book—15,000 words in a PDF—and I’d figure out how to expand it after. It worked, and I made it in four months in 2020, sent it to friends to visit and hired my own proofreader; I’m now publishing a new version with Holloway, I got to work with an editor on structure and development, and it’s in a beautiful digital book format. (I write more about that process here.)
When you gain success and capital, you’ll start to be able to use the resources to work at a larger scale. For example, Filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola funded Apocalypse Now himself to great critical and commercial success (“Because no one else wanted it”), as well as One From the Heart (he lost $26 million and lost every cent). Zach Baron writes in GQ:
This, of course, is the paradox of Coppola’s career: that for all his success, he has, to some extent, been waiting to make his own films, rather than someone else’s, for practically his entire life. “I always tell my kids, like Sofia—‘Let your films be personal. Always make it as personal as you can because you are a miracle, that you’re even alive. Then your art will be a miracle because it reflects stuff from someone who there is no other one like that.’ Whereas if you’re part of a school or ‘Yeah, I’m going to make a Marvel picture, and that’s the formula and I get it and I’ll do my best,’ sure it will still have your individuality, but as art, do that and do something else. But if you’re going to make art, let it be personal. Let it be very personal to you.”
There’s never been a better time to do the creative project that you want to do; there’s also been a worse time to make money or to get it the attention that it deserves. Don’t bet the farm on it; keep the pressure off, and make it easy for your creativity to flow.